The Check's In The Mail
The United States Postal Service is dead broke. The business that employes 554,000 employees who drive to your door and personally hand-deliver paper for 45 cents a piece is predicted to run a $14 billion deficit by the end of this year.
On April 24th the United States Senate passed a bipartisan bill intended to aid the financially troubled Postal Service. The bill would maintain Saturday delivery for two years, and make it harder to close down rural post offices during that time. It also would allow USPS to take back $11 billion in over-payments in order to offer incentives for postal workers to retire early. But the bill fails to address the actual problem plaguing the Postal Service.
The Root Of The Problem:
Most of the reporting on the Postal Service's money problems so far has been attributed to the decrease in first class mail. According to USPS's data, mail volume has dropped consistently over the last 10 years. In 2002, the Postal Service handled approximately 203 billion letters. In 2011, that figure was 168 billion.
But blaming e-mail for the Postal Service's financial troubles is missing the real story. Even as mail volume decreased, the Postal Service was still making a profit up until 2006, when George Bush signed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act into law.
The 2006 law required the Postal Service to pre-fund 100% of their worker retirement expenses for the next 75 years. No private company or other branch of the federal government does this.
"Most people don't understand the funding problem," reported Garrett Scott, a member of the 79th Branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Branch 79 is the union for all Letter Carriers throughout the Greater Seattle Area, including Auburn, Bothell, Redmond, and the surrounding cities. The union is opposed to the bill passed by the Senate, as well as a competing bill Darrell Issa (R-CA) is pushing in the House.
Neither bill addresses the pre-funding requirement at the root of USPS's financial troubles.
"The retirement accounts we're paying into: not only are they for employees we haven't hired yet. They are for future employees who aren't even born yet," said Scott in a phone interview.
Postal officials have indicated they will start making cuts by May 15th if congress doesn't act. First up on the chopping block: 3,700 under-utilized post offices in rural and poor areas of the country, Saturday delivery, and the 120,000-220,000 middle-class union jobs that would go with them.
"People in large cities may not see a huge difference," explained Scott. "But people living in rural areas need the Postal Service to communicate, to run their businesses, to deliver their medicine."
The Postal Clause of the United States Constitution guarantees access to everyone. USPS even delivers mail (and lots of groceries) by mule to people living in the Grand Canyon.
On the other hand, FedEx and UPS currently don't deliver to unprofitable areas. The two private carriers partner with USPS to deliver to areas outside of their service area. Lacking a local post office, people in rural areas would find themselves without service or paying exorbitant costs for postage.
And states like Washington and Oregon currently conduct all elections by mail. If rural voters lose access to the postal service, they also lose the ability to participate in our democracy.
Saving The Mail:
As a member of the e-everything, paperless iGeneration, I assumed the Postal Service was an antiquated relic going the same way as books, newspapers, and magazines. But looking into the issue further, it's hard to see this as anything other than one more example of conservative legislators targeting a large and powerful union.
"People need to understand the real reason why the Postal Service is having these problems. The Postal Service receives no tax dollars. But if the price of gas goes up, we spend millions more a day delivering the mail and can't raise the price of a stamp without Congress's approval."
"Even with all that, we were staying above water before we were forced to pre-fund all retirement benefits."
Asked for suggestions on getting involved, Scott was clear: "Tell your legislators about how important the postal service is to you. This is a bi-partisan issue. A lot of the post offices that would close are in rural areas represented by Republican legislators."
Jim McDermott speaking at a Postal Service Rally on April 12th.
"You pay for your phone, you pay for your Internet. You don't pay for your mail. It just gets delivered to you regardless."
The National Association of Letter Carriers is now working to pass a bill through the House that rolls back the pre-funding requirements and preserves Saturday deliver and rural offices. For more information, check out http://www.nalc.org/.
And write your mother. She worries.